Hints and Symbols

I dream in English

/ 05:03 AM December 17, 2018

My mother, who had coached me through spelling contests such that I was able to spell “tete a tete” at age 6, once said that you can tell if someone is really smart if they spoke straight English. Her schooling had stressed proficiency in Spanish and English as part of the curriculum. I believed her, and we spent a long time correcting my own pronunciation, making sure I never confused short “e” sounds with long “e”s, since it was this kind of easy mistake that could betray you.

I found this conviction increasingly challenged, then ultimately overturned when I realized that my friend, who graduated summa cum laude of his batch in the University of the Philippines system and who had one of the highest general weighted averages in our history, spoke slightly broken English littered with errors in subject-verb agreement. I brought this change of heart to my mother, who was broadminded enough to agree.


Broken or accented English, used as a joke, continues to be part of what we find funny. It was what made the stereotyped Apu, the Indian immigrant in “The Simpsons,” so memorable. Even in a culture increasingly concerned with political correctness, stereotypes persist, perpetuated by this nitpickiness with English proficiency. We know a foreign character is supposed to be sophisticated, intelligent or assimilated when they speak fluent English, devoid of a foreign accent; broken or accented English means that they are uneducated, poor, or suspect, as though English, as my mother had believed, were the one standard of supremacy. “Do you know how smart I am in Spanish?” Sofia Vergara’s Latina character says angrily in an episode of the series “Modern Family,” where her character made idiomatic mistakes like “you should try talking in my shoes for 1 mile.”

I was thinking of all this when I watched the current Miss USA make fun of her Asian peers. Remarks which were supposedly harmless and sympathetic on the part of a white girl stung of the condescension and superiority of a colonialist, and it says a lot that she could make these remarks while she was herself in an Asian country, not knowing a lick of the native language. The blank expression of noncomprehension worn by anyone confronted with a foreign language was described condescendingly as “adorable,” and the uniqueness of speaking only one’s native tongue, untainted by colonial aspirations, warranted a “Poor Colombia.”


If Miss USA wanted to truly represent the current political climate of her home country — xenophobic, intolerant, bigoted — then I believe she did an excellent job, reflecting the limited imaginations of a people used to seeing only reflections of themselves, unable to imagine the richness and depth of cultures elsewhere, unable to fathom an intelligence which can’t express itself well in the most widely broadcast language on earth.

But on a personal note, in watching Miss USA I was also, admittedly, relieved at my own fluency, relieved that my diction or my words would never embarrass me and betray my own Third World origins. In a more enlightened world, my mother’s old belief that English, the language of colonialists and rulers, the language which facilitated our rule and which continues to take pride of place in our educational system, is the standard, would have no place.

But we continue to use English as a reflection of intelligence. We use it as a benchmark to limit the capabilities and opportunities of other people. We make fun of people for poor pronunciation, and “Grammar Nazi” isn’t just the name of a Reese Lansangan song, but an acceptable thing to be.

My mother, a product of her time, dreamt colonial dreams and spoke a colonial language. I, the product of my time and of the books I read voraciously as a child, continue to dream in English, despite efforts to consume more Filipino-centric media. My own children will still live in a world where English is considered the baseline, but I hope that by then they will have more options in media that will allow them to enjoy Filipino. And I hope that they will not dream in the same language I do.

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TAGS: Hints and Symbols, kay rivera, spoken English
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